Camden: Transparency eludes legislators from both parties

By Jim Camden, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoJim Camden

During this legislative session in Olympia, transparency seems to be like one of those windows one sees on television cop shows, where officers watch through one-way glass as a detective grills the suspect. It’s transparent from the dark little room where other cops watch but reflectively opaque to the suspect.

To Republicans, who managed a parliamentary coup with the help of three disgruntled Democrats, transparency meant forcing a vote on a budget that until that afternoon was little more than a rumor and a collection of ideas they long said they’d enact if they were in charge. Bipartisanship had broken down and they’d been shut out of the process, they said.

Democrats said voting on a budget they hadn’t seen and that hadn’t been through a financial analysis or public hearing was not transparent. Their budget, which had been released Tuesday, the 51st day of a 60-day session, was transparent even if it might not have the votes to make it to the floor. But Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center noted the Senate Democrats’ budget was subjected to a hearing barely five hours after its release and the whole process was rife with hearings that didn’t meet required waiting periods. Such actions fly in the face of rules designed to foster wait for it transparency.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who also denounced Republicans for a lack of transparency, may have had a bit of standing, considering that she released a budget in November, more than a week before the Legislature came to town for a special session. While that budget arguably was transparent, her message was a bit disingenuous: Show up after Thanksgiving, pass my budget that cuts $2 billion and axes some vital programs, ask voters to raise the sales tax to buy some programs back, go home for Christmas, and return in 2012 to focus on reforms.

A pretty low standard

The most interesting thing about these malleable definitions of transparency is that up to Friday, the budget process the public could see wasn’t that much different from last year. Budgets were negotiated by a handful of legislators, then scheduled for hearing on short notice. People likely to be affected by cuts and groups that feel they bear an unfair burden of government requirements or taxes got a few minutes to express themselves. Rarely did anyone say, “Instead of cutting me, cut Program A, Policy B and Agency C” or “To cover the millions this exemption is going to cost you, raise taxes on industries X, Y and Z.” That might be a bit too transparent.

Leading Democratic Senators Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane and Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray of Seattle are probably right when they say things are more transparent than they were years ago. But that seems a pretty low standard. Some years the state gets a budget everybody dislikes but enough people are willing to swallow and approve. This year we got Friday night’s use of a parliamentary procedure that’s great theater, but whether it makes for a better budget remains to be seen.

Murray said adding more time for the public to study the budgets is next to impossible for a 60-day session with part-time legislators. He’s right, if they keep the current schedule where the calendar starts the first week of January. But how difficult would it be to pass an amendment to break the session in half, with a rule that each party in each chamber must release a budget at the end of 30 days, then take a week or two off before holding hearings and finishing the spending decisions? At the start of the second half, Ways and Means committees would be required to hold simultaneous hearings on both party’s budgets, giving the public a chance to compare and contrast, not just comment.

It could mean that when the two parties have different views of transparency, the public might be better able to determine whose truth approaches reality. And when legislators push out the inevitable last-minute compromise, more people will feel like they’re looking through the window with the cops, not staring at the mirror with the perp.